The development of soft robotics, that is to say, robots made of soft, flexible materials, has been stymied by the fact that sensors have to be made of relatively rigid materials. The problem for soft robots may well have been solved thanks to the efforts of a group of researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The Harvard researchers developed an organic ionic liquid-based conductive ink that can create sensors. They 3D print the soft material of the robots with ink, which gives the robots a sense the world around them. The ink-based sensors will be able to detect such things as texture, temperature, shape, size, and pressure. The soft robots would be able to identify, grasp, and manipulate a wide variety of objects with the new sensors guiding them.
The researchers tested the new technology by embedding the sensors in a three-fingered device and testing its ability to detect the various properties of objects that it grasped. The results were nothing short of phenomenal.
Applications for Soft Robot Technology
A number of applications exist for soft robotic technology using the 3D-printed sensors.
Soft robots can assist surgeons when they operate on a patient. The ability to change shape and to sense properties of human organs would help the devices navigate during a procedure.
There is a possibility to build technology in exo-suits. These serve as devices for injured patients or patient who have had strokes. Soldiers and construction workers can use the technology to enhanced strength and agility. Soft material with sensors embedded would work wonders for freedom of movement as compared to suits made with rigid material.
Finally, industrial soft robots would be far safer on the factory floor than the current versions. Accidents that happen when human workers get in the way of industrial robots have become a constant concern.
The Harvard researchers are now employing machine learning technology to enhance the ability of their new soft robots. They will learn to operate autonomously when grasping and manipulating objects.